Midterm Paper for Scriptural Reasoning (RELJ 575) Dennis Beck-Berman
Loving Your Neighbor
The Journal of Textual Reasoning 4:1 (Nov 2005) addresses the issue of “The Ethics of the Neighbor.”
In this paper I will compare and comment on different chains of interpretation for the famous verse, Love your
neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18) and related verses (Lev. 19:13-18,34). I will examine the plain sense of the
texts, their interpretations in ancient and medieval rabbinic literature, and then explain how the primary
sources and their later interpretations are understood and analyzed by the authors of two essays in this issue
of JTR: Kenneth Reinhard, “The Ethics of the Neighbor: Universalism, Particularism, Exceptionalism” and
Harold Schulweis, “The Ethics of the Neighbor.”
The injunction to Love your neighbor occurs near the center of the Torah
(Lev. 19:13) You shall not defraud your neighbor. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a
laborer shall not remain with you until morning. (14) You shall not insult the deaf, or place a
stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (15) You shall not render
an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.
(16) Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not keep up by the blood of your neighbor: I am
the Lord. (17) You shall not hate your kindred in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no
guilt because of him. (18) You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the members of your
people; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. . . . (Lev. 19:33) When a
stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. (34) The stranger who resides with
you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the
land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.
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The exegetical treatments of Lev. 19:18 in ancient and modern Jewish tradition have two foci: the
essence (How do you love someone as yourself?) and the object (Who counts as your neighbor?). Two related
contextual questions are: (1) How is love-of-the-neighbor related to the parallel injunction to love the stranger
in Lev. 19:34? and (2) What is the role of this seemingly impossible commandment in the Levitical Holiness
Code? The polysemous nature of this text is readily apparent as we address these questions.
The Hebrew verb‘’hb “love” is used for love between humans and other humans, either in the sense
of affection, desire, or carnal lust (BDB ad loc.). It is unclear whether there is a distinction between the verb
The Hebrew text is from BHS, 4th corrected ed. While I generally use the standard translations for ancient sources, I often modify
them based on my sense of the original and an examination of the best mss.
‘’hb with the direct object and the more unusual construction with the preposition ל in le-re’akha (to/for your
neighbor). If so, this construction probably calls for direct and helpful action toward one’s neighbor. Hence, it
was understood to mean “express love for your neighbor’s welfare.” Aside from 2 Chr. 19:2, this construction
occurs only in Lev. 19:18 and Lev. 19:34. And only in the latter two verses does it occurs with the adverbal
form as yourself. This is surely intended to draw attention to these two verses so that the reader understands
each in relation to the other.
The Hebrew noun re’a can mean “neighbor, friend, companion, fellow, fellow-citizen,” or “another
person” (BDB ad loc.) and designates a person “with whom one lives in community, the kernel of which is
not blood relationship but friendship.”
It is used here with the possessive suffix (your neighbor) in verses 13
(You shall not defraud your neighbor), 16 (Do not keep up by the blood of your neighbor), and 18 (Love your
neighbor as yourself ). In this pericope it is used in contrast with 4 other objects: your kinsman (vv. 15, 17),
your countrymen (v. 16), your kindred (v. 17), and the members of your people (v. 18). Indeed, the plethora of
different objects in these exhortations practically invites the reader to understand them as separate matters.
This would favor a universal understanding of your neighbor as “your fellow human.” Yet the fact that these
various terms are all used throughout the Holiness Code in deliberate alternation may well indicate their
This would favor a restrictive understanding of neighbor as “your fellow
It is unclear whether the connecting particle ve “and” that links the two halves of the verse indicates a
relationship of exception (“but”) or conjunction (“therefore”). The former would better suit a universal
interpretation (distinguishing between two separate matters); the latter a restrictive interpretation
(connecting the law of Love your neighbor with the previous laws regarding members of your people).
Nor can this dispute be resolved by the parallel commandment to love him (the stranger) as yourself, for
you were strangers in the land of Egypt (v. 34). Scripture stresses the duty to treat the stranger (ger) as fairly as
one is commanded to treat a citizen. These were usually foreign merchants, craftsman, or mercenary soldiers;
this term never appears to refer to the prior inhabitants of Canaan.
Due to xenophobic attitudes, most
ancient societies had laws protecting foreign merchants and officials from violence. But the divine injunction
requires far more: Israelites should love the resident alien, since they remember their treatment as aliens in
Egypt. Those favoring a universal understanding of your neighbor could argue that if the Torah commands
love of the non-Israelite in v. 34, it would be pointless to command exclusive love of the fellow Israelite in
v.18. Those favoring a restrictive understanding could argue that the stranger is limited to resident foreigners,
not native pagans, or that stranger refers to a “convert” to Judaism (also ger in Hebrew).
Johannes Pederson, Israel: Its Life and Culture (1959), 1:60.
See James L. Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (1990), 216. Cf. Deut. 15:3, He shall not dun his neighbor,
namely, his kinsman.
See Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (1989), ad loc. Reinhard notes that in Ex. 11:2 re’a refers to the Egyptians.
Along with the ambiguity of the object is the polysemous nature of the essence of this injunction.
Indeed, many of the commands enjoined in this passage of the Holiness Code are nearly impossible to
determine judicially. How can the Bible legislate human emotions: hatred, revenge, or love? It appears to be
a summons to go beyond lawful conduct and to achieve purity in thought and deed, to be holy (Lev. 19:1).
Such love is contrasted with hatred, injustice, vengeance or bearing a grudge towards another. It is also
associated with empathy based on a collective memory of mistreatment (v. 34). But Scripture does not
explicate the nature or limits of loving someone as yourself. It is not surprising, then, that there are divergent
exegetical traditions regarding the essence and object of Lev. 19:18 in ancient Jewish literature.
The book of Jubilees (2
c. BCE) is one of the earliest sources to address the ambiguities of Lev.
19:18. Abraham commands his descendants “that they should guard the way of the Lord so that they might
do righteousness and each one might love his neighbor and that it should be thus among all men, so that
each one might proceed to act justly and rightly toward them upon the earth” (20:2). Then Isaac says to his
sons Jacob and Esau:
And you shall love, my sons, your brothers — among yourselves — as a man loves his own self,
with each man seeking for his brother what is good for him, and acting together on the earth, and
loving each other as their own selves. … And each one shall love his brother with compassion and
righteousness, and no one will desire evil for his brother from now and forever all the days of your
lives” (36:4, 8).
The author of Jubilees explains that the essence of Love your neighbor as yourself is not to love the
actual person, which may be impossible, but to love your neighbor’s welfare.
One should desire the well
being of the neighbor to the same extent he desires his own, and one should treat the neighbor with
compassion, righteousness, and justice. He also appears to suggest that in the days of Abraham your neighbor
meant “all men,” whereas after the formation of the Jewish people, the Children of Jacob/Israel, your neighbor
meant “your brothers — among yourselves,” only your fellow Israelite. Or possibly he understands Love your
neighbor as both an element of Natural Law as well as a covenantal commandment.
The author of The Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs (2
c. BCE) believes that the essence of love is
actual love for your neighbor’s person, which should express itself psychologically as well as in behavior: “A
man should love his neighbor in deed and word and thought” (Gad 6:2); “Love the Lord throughout all your
life and a man (should love) his neighbor with a true heart” (Dan 5:3). Love of neighbor, like love of God, is
unlimited (Issachar 7:5-6):
I joined in lament with every man in pain, and I shared my bread with a poor man; I did not eat
alone. I did not move any boundary mark. I did deeds of piety and kept the truth all my days. I loved
the Lord with all my might; likewise, I loved every man as my own children.
Cf. Damascus Document (CD) 6:20-7:6, where those entering the Qumran community’s covenant must be “careful to act according
to the specifications of the Law: … to love each his brother as himself, and to grasp the hand of poor and needy and stranger and to
seek each the welfare of his fellow, … but not bearing a grudge day after day; … In short, for all who conduct their lives by these
laws, in perfect holiness, according to all the instructions, God’s covenant stands firm to give them life.”
Cf. n.5 above; Avot deRabbi Natan Version B 26: “If you desire to win the love of your fellow, concern yourself with his welfare.”
The essence of loving another as yourself appears to be understood here as actually loving another
person like your very own children! This work reflects a universal understanding of your neighbor.
brings together You shall love your neighbor with the other famous injunction You shall love the Lord your God
(Deut. 6:4). These two verses have often been highlighted as pillars of biblical teaching. Indeed, Lev. 19:18
— apparently with a universal understanding of your neighbor — was exalted as a central principle and the
epitome of all the Torah’s laws concerning relations between human beings
, just as Deut. 6:4 epitomized all
laws concerning relations between man and God. So Philo (1
c. CE) writes (Special Laws 2:63):
But among the vast number of particular truths and principles studied, there are two — more or
less — that stand out greater than all the rest: one of (duty) to God through piety and holiness, and
one of (duty) to mankind through a love of mankind (philanthropias) and justice.
Similarly, the Didache (2
c. CE), a Christian manual composed of older Jewish traditions, states:
“The way of life is this: First, you shall love the Lord your Maker, and secondly, your neighbor as yourself;
and whatever you do not want to be done to you, you shall not do to anyone else” (3:1-2). The latter clause
appears to be a paraphrase of Love your neighbor as yourself in a negative formulation. Given the impossibility
of true love for all other people, it limits love to an attainable, realistic moral principle. It is first found in
Jewish sources in Tobit (2
c. BCE), “What you hate, do to no one” (4:15), and also in Targum Pseudo-
Jonathan b. Uziel (2
c. CE) to Lev. 19:18, “And love your neighbor/fellow; for what is hateful to you, do
not do to him; I am the Lord.”
It appears in a tale about Hillel (beg. 1
c. CE) in the Babylonian Talmud
(Shabbat 31a) in which the famous sage cites this well-known paraphrase of Love your neighbor:
Another incident of a heathen who came before Shammai. He said to him, “Convert me! (But
only) on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” He struck him with
the builder’s cubit which was in his hand. He came before Hillel (with the same request). He
converted him, (For) he said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the
whole Torah; the rest is commentary — Go! Learn it!”
In another famous passage, R. Aqiva (beg. 2nd c. CE) declares that Love your neighbor as yourself is the
epitome of the whole Torah (Sifra Qedoshim 4 to Lev. 19:18):
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Rabbi Aqiva says: This is a great (the greatest?) general
principle in the Torah. Ben Azzai says: This is the book of the generations of Adam: (when God created
man, He made him in the likeness of God.) (Gen. 5:1) — This is a more encompassing/greater principle
Cf. Ben Sirah 27:17-18, “Love (your) neighbor and be faithful to him.”
In the New Testament (ca. 1
c. CE) see Matthew 22:35-40; Luke 10:25-28; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8.
Targum Onkelos (contra Reinhard, 4), Targum Neofiti, and the fragment Targums render Lev. 19:18 literally.
Cf. Mishnah Avot 1:12, where Hillel says: “Be a disciple of Aaron, who loves peace and pursues peace, who loves humanity (haberiyot)
and draws them closer to to the Torah.” Since one of Shammai’s cardinal rules was “Greet every person cheerfully” (Mishnah Avot 1:15),
I prefer to imagine Shammai as a Zen master, teaching the same principle as Hillel by example: Just as you did not like my striking you,
do not do so to others.
Ben Azzai, a prominent student of Rabbi Aqiva, counters that Gen. 5:1, stating that all humans are
created in the image of God, is a superior principle to serve as the epitome of Torah.
understand him as challanging Aqiva’s exclusivism in favor of a universalism, predicated on the creation of all
human beings in the image of God. Indeed, Sifra, a midrash of the so-called Aqivan school, subsequently
follows a restrictive exegesis: Loving your neighbor refers to your fellow Jew and loving the stranger refers to
the convert to Judaism!
But Aqiva’s understanding of the essence of love
and the object of your neighbor
Some ancient rabbis feel strongly that Rabbi Aqiva interprets Lev. 19:18 universally. While this
pericope is cited verbatim in the Palestinian Talmud (beg. 5
c. CE), Nedarim 9:4, it appears completely
revised in Genesis Rabba 24:7 (also beg. 5
Ben Azzai said: This is the book of the generations of Adam: (when God created man, He made him in
the likeness of God) (Gen. 5:1). This is a great (the greatest?) general princlple of the Torah. Rabbi
Aqiva says: And you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18) is a more encompassing/greater
principle than that.
Hence you must not say, “Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbour be put to shame along
with me.” “Since I have been treated rudely, let my neighbour be treated rudely along with me.” Rabbi
Tanhuma (end 4
c. CE) said: If you acted so, know whom you put to shame! He made him in the
likeness of God (Gen. 5:1).
By reversing the order of the statements from the original in Sifra, the internal logic is so disturbed
that commentators medieval and modern all assume the textual tradition is simply corrupt. But how could
such a blatant error originate let alone be maintained in nearly all the manuscripts and printed editions?
Apparently, the compiler(s) intends by this reversal to remove any doubt that R. Aqiva maintains a
universalist interpretation. Otherwise, he cannot claim that Love your neighbor (i.e., your fellow Jew) is a
more encompassing/greater principle than God created all human beings in the likeness of God. Of course, Ben
I am puzzled that he chooses this prooftext, rather than Gen. 1:27, And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created
him. Perhaps he is concerned that the latter refers specifically to the the primordial human, Adam, while Gen. 5:3 makes it clear that
Adam’s descendants are similarly in his likeness after his image.
Sifra Qedoshim 8 (to Lev. 19:34): “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as
yourself. Just as it was stated (in Scripture) regarding Israel, And you shall love your neighbor as yourself, so it is stated regarding converts,
You shall love him as yourself.” The rabbis often interpret neighbor as “excluding others,” i.e. non-Jews, those outside the covenant
community, the quintessential “other.” See, e.g., Sifre Deut. 112, 266; Mekhilta Nezikin 4 to Ex. 21:14.
A story is told about Rabbi Aqiva in Avot deRabbi Natan Version B 26 (end 3
c. CE), similar to the story of Hillel, in which he
replies: “The general principle of the Torah is: ‘What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow.’” Here Aqiva seems to hold a
universal understanding of Lev. 19:18.
Reinhard (13) argues that since the preceding midrash permits taking vengeance and bearing a grudge against “others,” Aqiva’s remark
presumably serves “the narrowest of tribalisms.” Perhaps this Aqivan tradition is cited precisely as a counterweight to the preceding
anonymous midrash, a pattern described by Steven D. Fraade in From Tradition to Commentary (1991). See n. 13 above.
So in ed. Theodor-Albeck, MSS. Vatican 30, London, Paris, and Geniza fragment; others, trying to smooth the difficulty, read: “Love
your neighbor is (also) a great general princlple of the Torah.” Reinhard correctly notes that the conclusion is a gloss to Ben Azzai’s
argument (15). But then he claims: “Another editorial tradition groups the sentence about shaming the neighbor with Akiva's position,
not Ben Azzai's.” There is no such tradition; it is simply an interpretation given by Mirkin in his comments ad loc.
Reinhard (13) states: “Because the text is a commentary on Genesis, Ben Azzai's judgment necessarily comes first.” Such a solution
never occurs to any other modern or medieval commentator, since midrashic compilers typically cite traditions verbatim even after
different scriptural lemmas. Reinhard would need to provide several examples where this occurs to make his case.
Azzai’s verse nevertheless remains the more encompassing principle, so the midrash uses Gen. 5:1 in
midrashic fashion to amend Lev. 19:18. Since you are bidden to love your neighbor as yourself, not more than
yourself, you might think that when you are put to shame, you may retaliate. But because all humans are
created in God’s image, an insult to your insolent neighbor is an insult to God. This view probably assumes
that one is bidden to love even an enemy, who is also created in the divine image. Indeed, why should the
Torah find it necessary to command you to love only your friends? But before exploring this theme further, it
will be useful to examine another ancient hermeneutic stream to which such views are responding.
Some of those who reject a universal understanding of neighbor restrict it even beyond “fellow Jew.”
In Qumran (ca. 1
c. BCE), your neighbor was limited to fellow members of the community, fellow Children
Some rabbis understand your neighbor as referring exclusively to one who acts like your true
neighbor. Love one who behaves like a loyal fellow Jew, but hate disloyal apostates. This idea appears in
Avot deRabbi Natan Version A 16:5 (end 3
“And hatred of humanity” (Mishnah Avot 2:16). What is that? This teaches that no man should
think of saying, “Love the sages but hate the disciples”; “Love the disciples but hate the (impious)
peasants.” On the contrary, love all these but hate the heretics, apostates, and informers. For so
David said, O Lord, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe Your adversaries. I feel a perfect hatred
toward them; I count them my enemies (Psalm 139:21-22). But does not (Scripture) say, And you shall
love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord (Lev. 19:18)? So if he acts as your people (i.e., your fellow
Jews) do, you should love him; but if not, you should not love him.
What is the point (of I am the Lord)? Because I (Israel’s Maker) have created him (Isaiah 45:8).
Rabbi Simon ben Eleazar says: Under solemn (divine) oath was this pronouncement made: And you
shall love your neighbor as yourself; (I am the Lord) (Lev. 19:18). Because I — the Lord — created him
(Isa. 45:8). If you love him, I am faithful to reward you in good measure; but if not, I am the judge to
By connecting both verses, You shall not hate your brother … But you shall love your neighbor as yourself
(Lev. 19:17-18), the injunction to Love your neighbor paradoxically became understood as Love (only!) your
neighbor as yourself, but hate all those who are not really your neighbor.
In his midrash, Rabbi Simon ben
Eleazar (end 2
c. CE) contends that the seemingly unnecessary conclusion of the verse, I am the Lord, does
have significance: God takes observance of this commandment very seriously and will greatly reward those
who love their neighbor but severely punish those who do not.
Such exclusivist interpretations underlie the statement (Matthew 5:43-48) of Jesus (beg. 1
You have heard that it was stated (in Scripture): You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,
that you take after your
Father in heaven, for he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous
Community Rule (1QS) 1:9-10; 9:16-17, 21-22; 10:20-21; cf. above n. 5. Medieval rabbinic commentators, too, often impose
further limitations. Maimonides (12
c.) confines the category of neighbor solely to observant Jews, to “him who is your brother in the
Law and in the performance of the commandments.”
c.) similarly adds the proviso, “if he (really) is your neighbor, (that is) if he is good, but not if he is wicked, as it is
written, To fear the Lord is to hate evil (Prov. 8:13).” Cf. James L. Kugel, The Bible As It Was (1997), 456 ff.
Cf. Testament of Joseph (2
c. BCE) 18:2: “And if anyone seeks to harm you, you should do him good and pray for him, for the Lord
will save you from every evil.”
and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the
tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more do you (than others)? Do
not even the gentiles do the same? So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus (beg. 1
c. CE) rejects the interpretation of Lev. 19:18 as Love (only) your neighbor (fellow Jew)
as yourself, and attain great reward from God, but hate all those who are your enemy. He stresses the broader
goal of the Holiness Code, to strive for complete holiness and spiritual perfection (Lev. 19:1). To a people
accustomed to a divine justice based upon “measure for measure,” he highlights the irony of expecting divine
reward for acting no better than despised tax collectors or heathens. Indeed, he raises the problem: How can
Love your neighbor be the epitome of the divine Torah if it is interpreted restrictively, since it would then
make so little demand of God’s holy people?
Genesis Rabba implicitly raises the concept of loving even your enemy, who is created in the divine
image, Jesus does so explicitly, and apparently interprets Love your neighbor as “Love your enemy,”
midrashically relating re’a neighbor to r‘a’ “evil, hostile; enemy.”
On another occasion, Jesus appears to
counter those (as in Avot deRabbi Natan above) who interpret Love your neighbor as “love (only the one who
acts as) your neighbor (i.e., fellow Jew).” Jesus is asked, “And who is my neighbor ?” His reply, the famous
parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), suggests that ultimately your neighbor is anyone who truly
acts like your neighbor — including a despised Samaritan.
The Jewish sources from the 2
century BCE through the 4
century CE reflect an onging debate
about both the essence of love and its object in Lev. 19:18. Regarding the former, the dominant approach
views neighbor-love as an ideal which should be fulfilled in specific actions (loving another’s welfare; not
committing harmful acts), rather than in emotions (loving the person). Regarding the latter, while both the
universalist and exclusivist interpretations are well represented, in the Jewish legal sources (halakhah) the
dominant approach is exclusivist: your neighbor refers to a fellow Jew.
Possibly the reason for this choice of object is to be found in the rabbinic understanding of the
essence. The rabbis codify neighbor-love in countless specific religious duties grounded in Lev. 19:18,
including acts meant to alleviate the suffering of others,
to increase other people’s enjoyment, and to
minimize the friction of everyday social relations. In order for the Jewish people to achieve the Torah’s ideal
of holiness, the rabbis seek to create among members of the covenantal community a web of compassionate
concern for the welfare and well-being of others through the praxis of halakhah. But this is only possible
through an exclusivist reading of Lev. 19:18. Since the universalism of rabbinic Judaism in both theology and
Cf. Job 21:30; Prov. 11:21, 12:13, 24:20. Note that David, perhaps punning, calls his enemy Saul re’a in 1 Samuel 15:28. Schulweis
(2) suggests (I think unconvincingly) the dictum in the Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 75a is a midrash connecting re’a with r‘a’, “evil.”
The earliest sources include establishing humane forms of execution (Tosefta Sanhedrin, 9 end) and a groom should view the bride
before the wedding (Babylonian Talmud Qiddushin 41a).
praxis cannot be grounded on Lev. 19:18, it is based instead on Gen. 1:27, the creation of all humans in the
and on “profaning (God’s) name” (chillul hashem)
The hermeneutic approach of the rabbis is a direct outgrowth of their broader contextual
understanding of the Levitical Holiness Code. While there are many specific commandments, by grounding a
myriad of laws in Lev. 19:18 they are able to create a motto for the Jewish people, similar to an
organizational mission statement. They prefer the negative paraphrase as a clearer, more practical
formulation. It is simple enough to learn while standing on one foot and can be readily used as a guide to
proper behavior in many situations.
Now I will turn to how Reinhard and Schulweis understand and analyze the primary sources and their
rabbinic interpretations. Kenneth Reinhard begins his essay by examining “the modern claim that the central
character and essential originality of Judaism lies in its universalist, humanistic ethics” (1). He then analyzes a
talmudic tale often cited as primary evidence, the story of Hillel and Shammai (p.4 above). He cleverly notes
that the seemingly innocent appendix (“the rest is commentary — “Go! Learn it!”) simultaneously invites the
gentile into the covenant yet exposes the arrogance of his request. “Hillel’s reply complicates the notion of
the covenant by suggesting that although conversion is simple, it is never complete; rather than simply
stepping across a line and by accepting the simplest of moral principles, the proselyte — and indeed all Jews
— must take on a endless project of infinite approach” (1). I disagree, however, with Reinhard’s claim that
what is at stake in this passage is the deconstruction of the moral opposition between “inside” and “outside”
the covenant. I see Hillel stressing the rabbinic understanding of Love your neighbor as a model for holiness
expressed through countless religious norms (see below, p. 11).
Reinhard correctly observes in another tale of Hillel from the same talmudic passage that a convert or
a born Jew is still regarded as a stranger when it comes to priestly priviledges; one can be inside the Jewish
people and yet in significant ways still remain an outsider. But since the tale nowhere alludes to Lev. 19:18
or refers to the neighbor, it is not entirely clear to me how Reinhard relates it to his larger argument about
Reinhard turns to Romans 13:8, He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The Pauline concept
of neighbor-love is “not merely symbolic of the totality of rabbinic law, but is in itself meant to discharge the
law” (3). For Paul, to fulfil the law is both to satisfy and complete it. This leads Reinhard to suggest that the
accusation of Jewish exclusiveness and the challenge presented by Christianity’s theory of universal inclusion
led the rabbis to develop a rival mode of universalism, one that counters the Pauline principle of totality with
one of infinity. For this he uses an opposition developed by Emmanuel Levinas. Totality implies a relationship
of the same with itself; infinity is produced in the relationship of the same with the other/ neighbor.
See R. Aqiva’s midrashim in Mishnah Avot 3:14; Tosefta Yevamot 9:4; Genesis Rabba 34:6. Cf. n. 24 below, on the legal concept of “in
the interests of peace.”
See Babylonian Talmud Yoma 84a, 86a; Baba Qama 113b; Avodah Zarah 28a; Palestinian Talmud Baba Qamma 4:3.
I find Reinhard’s notion of a rabbinic move to infinity versus totality very persuasive. In order to
expand the halakhic import of Love your neighbor infinitely, the rabbis had to limit its object to fellow Jews!
But I am not convinced that it was motivated as a response to Christianity. It seems a natural outgrowth of
the rabbinic enterprise of making the Torah an all-encompassing guide to a life of holiness.
Reinhard’s next argument focuses on reading Lev. 19:18 in the context of Lev. 19:34. Nahmanides
c.) points out insofar as v. 34 echoes the identical formula of v. 18, the word ger retroactively informs
the meaning of re’a. For several thinkers, the syntactical echo between re’a and ger indicates that the
commandment to neighbor-love must be universal. Reinhard, however, argues that the parallelism of the two
verses implies that neighbor-love involves an element of essential difference (7-8). Both the self and the
neighbor are “strange,” internally alienated from a larger group, whether Egypt or Israel. The stranger of v. 34
not only expands the object in v. 18, but also reminds the subject of the history of estrangement which has
determined his identity. The proximity of re’a and ger brings out what is strange in the neighbor, who emerges
as an excluded element, not only a minority, but alienated within exile, a “neighbor to oneself.”
Reinhard turns his attention to the Jewish/rabbinic meaning of “love,” which he defines as:
[the] infinitization of the universal: not only the extension of love to strangers, but also the
materialization of love in a precisely specified yet never perfected list of quotidian acts and affects, a legal
hermeneutics of love that derives … from the uncertain situation of the injunction between the jurisdictions
of ethical and ritual law” (8).
He demonstrates that this Jewish infinitization of love is reflected in Nahmanides’s commentary on
Lev. 19:18. Nahmanides realizes that it is impossible to achieve perfect love of another person himself, given
human jealousy and competitiveness. Hence, he limits Lev. 19:18 to love of the person’s welfare, imposing a
duty that can be fulfilled: “A person should love to do abundance of good for his fellow as he does for himself,
and he should place no limitations upon his love for him” (9).
Reinhard thinks the debate between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai (pp. 4 ff. above) demonstrates how
Jewish ethics in its content and methods eludes the opposition of exclusivism and universalism (13). He is
unable to resolve “the strange discrepancy between the two sources as to which principle is the ‘greater’ or
‘more encompassing’” (15) because he does not understand the motivation of the compiler(s) of Genesis
Rabba. While his style is often abstruse, I find the following argument exceeds my capacities as a textual
In Sifra, the creationist motif serves to limit the potential specularity of neighbor-love, whereas in
Genesis Rabbah, Akiva’s Levitical impulse is associated not with specularity but with its rupture. If
each version taken independently seems to move toward asserting a universal principle, the
juxtaposition of these incommensurable retellings infinitizes the universal as the very essence of a
constitutionally unrequited love (15).
Reinhard’s conclusion that neighbor-love must apply to non-Jews is reached thru a novel logic. True
moral responsibility is not based on reciprocal obligation. You are commanded to Love your neighbor’s welfare
as your own regardless of your personal feelings toward him or his behavior toward you. Love your neighbor is
not grounded in empathy with a humanity equally created in the divine image. The Jew, remembering the
mistreatment he felt as a stranger in Egypt, must love the stranger in his midst. Moreover, he, too, is both
neighbor and stranger within different layers of community. Hence, Love your neighbor is grounded in
empathy with the neighbor who is equally a stranger. The injunction’s universality stems from the fact that
any human being can become a neighbor, a member of the covenanted community. The set of fellow Jews can
expand infinitely to include all future converts. I find Reinhard’s argument ingenious, though not entirely
convincing. It is possible that Love your neighbor includes only fellow Jews, and the Torah therefore provides
a separate command to love the stranger, along with a rationale, since it requires more effort to love the
stranger than your neighbor.
Harold Schulweis, in his brief essay, astutely observes the ambiguity of both the essence and object in
Lev. 19:18. He briefly notes the exclusivist interpretations of neighbor as “fellow Jew,” “good Jew,” and even
“observant Jew.” Such restrictive notions have serious consequences, since they affect ethical conduct and
prescribe the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. For example, Maimonides rules that You shall not stand
idly by the blood of thy neighbor does not include “sinful” Jews or gentiles, for none of these is your neighbor.
In response, Rabbi Menachim Ha-Meiri (13
c. CE) articulates a bold and revolutionary change in the
relationship between Jews and gentiles with a new legal-social status for his gentile neighbors. All talmudic
laws expressing exclusivism and prejudice towards gentiles refer only to idolaters, but not to Christians and
Muslims, whose faith is bound to moral law.
Unlike Reinhard, Schulweis — wisely, in my opinion — does
not feel compelled to ground Jewish universalism exclusively/primarily in Lev. 19:18, 34.
Ultimately, a Jewish moral sensibility will not tolerate denigration of the “other” because we are all
created in the divine image. As some Hasidic masters taught, Love your neighbor can mean to love God, to
love the divinity in ourselves. Indeed, we are one in God, as a rabbinic commentator explained, Love your
neighbor who is yourself.”
(Reinhard would characterize this as a “totality” understanding, which he rejects.)
The issue of who is your neighbor is not merely an academic, exegetical exercise; it is actually existential, a
matter of life and death. Texts are mirrors which reflect ourselves, and in ourselves we discover the “other,”
our neighbor. In today’s imperiled world, all religious leaders must overcome the denigration of others in
Schulweis writes: “Ha-Meiri's inclusive thinking yielded rabbinic mandates ordaining that ‘Jews are obligated to feed the hungry of
the Gentiles together with the hungry of the Jews; to bury the dead of the Gentiles together with the dead of the Jews; to comfort the
bereaved of the Gentiles together with the bereaved of the Jews.’” But all these were already legislated through the legal concept of “in the
interests of peace” see Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a; cf. Mishnah Shevi’it 4:3, 5:9; Gittin 5:9.
Some Hasidic interpretations are amazing. Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin: The verse teaches a principle for a life of divine service.
What you do for God and for your neighbor is also for your own good (since you are all one!) You will love (the Lord) — the love of God
— (for the good of) your neighbor — is for the good of your neighbor — as yourself — and is for your own good. The Besht: As you love
your neighbor — Just as you love your neighbor —like you am I the Lord — measure for measure, so does God love you. Rabbi Elimelekh
of Lizensk: Only if you think of yourself as if you are not existant, except by means of the imaginative faculty — as if your self — will
you be able to love the Lord your friend — As you love your friend… I am the Lord. Rabbi Simon of Skarnovitz: And you will love your
neighbor — Just as I (the Lord) love you despite your faults, so you must love another even though he is not perfect in his deeds — Like
you I am the Lord.
dogma and doctrine, and open the letters of the text to reveal its divine spirit. We must rediscover that the
“other” is myself. “If I can learn to love myself, I can learn to love you” (3).
I strongly agree with Schulweis’s plea for all religions to strive to find in their scriptural understanding
a basis for mutual love and respect. I would go further and plead that all religious thinkers need to move
beyond triumphalism. In biblical, Jewish, Christian, and modern worldviews, people often frame issues in
terms of universal and particular. Reinhard, Schulweis, and many modern thinkers frame their analysis of the
object of Lev. 19:18 this way, though Reinhard limns the universal in terms of totality and infinity.
Ultimately, this dichotomy emerges from this worldview. Each of the monotheistic, scripturally-based
religions traditionally considers its particular faith the one, true, universal faith for all humanity. But from a
Gaian perspective, just as every species is equally important, so is every religion. The whole chain of life
depends on everything being there. Analogously, Judaism needs to have Christianity to challenge it, and in the
same way each religion is a necessary, integral part of the planet. By moving beyond triumphalism, all religions
can share a dialogical approach to truth.
When viewed from an organic framework, the debate over the
object of Lev. 19:18 need no longer be demarcated by the dichotomy of universal and particular: the two are
ultimately one. The divine injunction to Love your neighbor as yourself means that every individual person,
aware that you are an organic part of humanity — as is also your tribe/people/religion — must love all other
persons who, as yourself, are part of Life.
A similar resolution of the ambiguity in Love your neighbor can also emerge from a deeper look at the
rabbinic codification of neighbor-love in countless specific religious duties. To achieve the Torah’s ideal of
holiness, the rabbis seek to create among members of the covenantal community a web of compassionate
concern for the welfare and well-being of others through the praxis of halakhah. The Torah commands Love
your neighbor as yourself — and reemphasizes Love (even the stranger!) as yourself — as a means to an end.
Love is the ultimate purpose of humanity and our greatest happiness. “The Compassionate One desires the
The rabbis understood that behind Scripture’s seemingly impossible command lies divine wisdom:
The Torah commands love for its goal is to inculcate love. Indeed, the rabbinic praxis of love leads to feelings
of love. Love — the deep feeling of affection toward a person arising from a sense of underlying oneness
is both the means and the end. Ultimately, then, the command to Love your neighbor must include all
humans. For the Jewish people to be holy/wholly, they must realize that they are all one, all part of an organic
whole, of a world created by and for love.
On Gaia, triumphalism, and dialogical mentality see Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Paradigm Shift (1993).
Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 106b, following Rashi.
Cf. Palestinian Talmud Nedarim 9:4: “It is written: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the members of your people (Lev.
19:18). How is (this law) done? Someone was cutting meat and the knife (accidentally) wounded his hands. Should he (avenge the hurt
by) wounding his hand again?!” This midrash understands the clause You shall not take vengeance in light of its continuation. Taking
vengeance against your neighbor is tantamount to cutting off your nose to spite your face, since you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
You must treat your neighbor as yourself, as though you and your neighbor are part of one whole.